1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

2 comments May 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this day in 1076, William the Conqueror had Northumbrian Earl Waltheof II beheaded for treachery — the only major noble executed by the Norman king.

Waltheof in the comics! (Or see him trade up to battle-axe here.) According to Reality Fiction, Waltheof had a colorful afterlife as a literary character whose reputed exploits grew more prolific with age; he was a popular saint in the next generations. Some also consider Waltheof a possible ancestor of Robin Hood.

When the Norman Conquest brought William the Conqueror to power, the nobles didn’t know the Normans would be able to keep what they’d won … and being nobles, they started plotting.

Multiple revolts shook the northern marches where Waltheof had his domain, and the burly Northumbrian, according to skald Thorkill Skallason, was a Norman-killing machine.

Waltheof burned a hundred
Of William’s Norman warriors
As the fiery flames raged;
What a burning there was that night!

Our day’s principal made nice with the Conqueror and even got dynastically wedded to William’s niece, Judith.

But his fame as a warrior and strategically positioned estates soon had conspirators wooing him for another run at rebellion — the Revolt of the Earls, which would turn out to be the last serious resistance to the last successful invasion of Britain.

Waltheof either (accounts are radically at odds) signed on and then got cold feet, or got entrapped into it, or didn’t join but also didn’t report it when he found out, or got shopped for political reasons by his Norman bride. (Judith, suspiciously, got to keep his huge tracts of land after Waltheof lost his head for the property-confiscating offense of treason.)

Whatever the case, he was soon obliged to throw himself on the mercy of the king. He got a royal wife as his first prize for a brush with treason. His second prize was, he was decapitated.

Waltheof is supposed to have made such a delay at the scaffold with the Lord’s Prayer that the headsman got impatient and lopped off his dome after the words “Lead us not into temptation.” Devotional legend says that the severed head completed the prayer.

Thorkill Skallason remembered the last English earl still keeping it real under William’s rule.

William crossed the cold channel
and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed
noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England
will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof
Will never be seen on earth.

Another quarter-millennium elapsed before another English earl — Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster — was put to death in the realm.

Waltheof’s story is told in detail in the context of The history of the Norman conquest of England, available free from Google books, and directly from the relevant primary documents here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 11th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1718: John “Jack Ketch” Price, former hangman

1 comment May 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1718, the former common hangman got a taste of his own medicine.

As the 18th and especially 19th centuries unfolded and executions became more private, orderly and “humane,” the executioner’s office became more subtle and bourgeois. In the early 1700’s, however, it was commonly filled by a character who might just as easily have been on the other end of the rope. And once in a while … they were.

One disreputable character who performed the office for twenty years and more following the Stuart Restoration, Jack Ketch, lent his very name to the position (and its accoutrement — e.g., “Jack Ketch’s knot,” the hangman’s noose).

Our day’s victim, by the Christian name of John Price, was “Jack Ketch” in 1714-1715 until his debts caught up with him, and if the Newgate chronicle be believed wasn’t half-bad at the gig. Alas that he lost the position: his life in every other respect is reported by our sanctimonious interlocutors as one of drunken savagery.*

In such a state a couple of years later, he beat a woman to death during an attempted (or actual) rape at Bunhill Fields, at which location the law compelled him, in the parlance of the times, to “dance with Jack Ketch.” The prospect of hanging concentrated old Ketch’s mind wonderfully on the task of not missing one precious moment that might be spent drinking.

[H]e was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva [i.e., gin] … As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution

One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.

Price/Ketch was not the only public executioner to find himself on the receiving end of his former trade, but he does seem to have the distinction of being the only one who was also gibbeted — his carcass hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway.

Update: John Price’s career narrated by Lucy Inglis of Georgian London in a podcast interview with Early American Crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,The Worm Turns

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